Saddam Hussein’s Regime Produced The Islamic State

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on April 21, 2015


Having presented the evidence that Saddam Hussein Islamized his foreign policy and then Islamized his regime, above all with the Islamic Faith Campaign, beginning in June 1993 that tried to fuse Ba’athism with Salafism, encouraging (and keeping under surveillance) a religious revival in Iraq that redounded to the benefit of the regime’s legitimacy and support, I wanted to look at what this history means for Iraq and the wider region now.

I pointed out in October that the “military strength” of the Islamic State (ISIS) “comes from the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s military-intelligence apparatus and the Caucasus’ Salafi-jihadists.”

When ISIS began as al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia (AQM) it was led by a Jordanian, Abu Musab az-Zarqawi. After Zarqawi was killed in 2006, the organisation became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and was formally led by an Iraqi, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, whose Egyptian deputy Abu Hamza al-Muhajir (a.k.a. Abu Ayyub al-Masri), remained powerful; both were killed in 2010.

After Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over ISIS in 2010, it is said that his assertion of control included “an assassination campaign against any of his commanders suspected of potential disloyalty” that placed ISIS’ military command in the hands of men “Baghdadi knows and trusts intimately.”

Who were these trusted men? Captured documents have identified ISIS’ leaders.

  • Abu Muslim al-Turkmani (real name: Fadel Ahmad Abdullah al-Hiyali): ISIS overall commander in Iraq, who had been right at the core of Saddam’s military-intelligence apparatus in Special Forces. Turkmani was reportedly killed in December, but there is a suspicion that ISIS’ senior leaders fake their deaths in order to evade actual death.
  • Abu Abdulrahman al-Bilawi (real name: Adnan Ismail Najem al-Bilawi), a former captain in Saddam’s army, was head of ISIS’ Military Council, believed to be the most important ISIS military “institution,” until he was killed right before the Mosul offensive.
  • Abu Muhannad al-Suwaydawi (real name: Adnan Latif Hamid al-Suwaydawi), who replaced Bilawi, was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Ba’athist military. [Correction: Al-Suwaydawi was for a long while misidentified as Abu Ayman al-Iraqi.] 

It was also an ex-Saddamist, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, who was dispatched to Libya to set up an Islamic State branch in that country, mostly by peeling men away from al-Qaeda’s Ansar al-Shari’a, and using local criminal networks.

[For a long time it was believed Abu Ali al-Anbari, who at this time oversaw ISIS-held areas in Syria and was, according to Hisham al-Hashimi, with al-Turkmani, the “reasons behind the strength of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” had been a Major-General in Saddam’s army. As it transpired, this was not so: al-Anbari turned out to be Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli, a cleric and long-time member of al-Qaeda back to the late 1990s, involved in the underground Salafi Trend in Iraq in Saddam’s time, rather than the security services.]

Of the foreigners, only the Chechens have any military significance because of their experience in the wars with Russia—though the ambiguities of that war make this a double-edged sword. The most notable case is Abu Omar al-Shishani (real name: Tarkhan Batirashvili), who is actually Georgian and now ISIS’ formal military leader.

The foreigners who come from the Arab world and Europe, the young men of no military experience, are used by these graduates of Saddam’s Faith Campaign at the helm of ISIS in their shari’a and media departments, I noted, and some of the foreigners are then used as expendable rounds, allowing these zealots to achieve the martyrdom they crave, while ISIS’ leaders use their death notices for further recruitment.


Two recent articles, one by Liz Sly in the Washington Post and one by Christoph Reuter in Der Spiegel, underlined these points.

Sly notes that a Syrian who joined ISIS found he was “receiving orders from shadowy Iraqis,” all of whom “were former Iraqi officers who had served under Saddam Hussein”. The Syrian man also noted, “The Iraqis themselves don’t fight. They put the foreign fighters on the front lines.”

Reuter’s article works from thirty-one previously unseen documents, which were captured by the Syrian rebellion during the anti-ISIS revolt in January 2014. The rebels struck down Haji Bakr (real name: Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi), a former colonel in Saddam’s intelligence service, in northern Aleppo, and discovered that they had eliminated the strategic head of ISIS. “Haji Bakr traveled to Syria as part of a tiny advance party in late 2012,” Reuter writes, and brought with him an improbable plan that would soon be meticulously executed: “IS would capture as much territory as possible in Syria. Then, using Syria as a beachhead, it would invade Iraq.”

Reuter notes ISIS’ recruitment of spies in Syria through Dawa Offices it opened in the spring of 2013—a tactic straight from the Faith Campaign, encouraging religious institutions the better to recruit, and keep an eye on, the faithful. ISIS infiltrated not only rebel brigades and civil organisations in the liberated areas, but prominent families by marrying ISIS fighters into them. Individuals who posed potential problems were assassinated. This is exactly what the KGB did as it conquered Eastern Europe after the Second World War, pre-emptively liquidating anyone it thought likely to be an obstacle to the Soviet Union fastening its rule on the Captive Nations. That these former Saddamists should act in this way is no surprise: Saddam’s intelligence services were trained by the KGB—which also explains why ISIS’ propaganda is so good.

On the military side, Reuter notes that ISIS’ strategic leaders decided to keep a low profile, and in fact “explicitly prohibited their Iraqi fighters from going to Syria.” But ISIS “also chose not to recruit very many Syrians.”

The IS leaders opted for the most complicated option instead: They decided to gather together all the foreign radicals who had been coming to the region since the summer of 2012. Students from Saudi Arabia, office workers from Tunisia and school dropouts from Europe with no military experience were to form an army with battle-tested Chechens and Uzbeks. It would be located in Syria under Iraqi command.

It worked. ISIS, with the military capability of a State and the skills in espionage and counter-intelligence honed by the KGB, was able to outdo local militias in Syria that had formed mostly to protect their towns from the depredations of Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship. ISIS leadership created an intricate structure to prevent infiltration while allowing it to give instructions. The Syrian rebel brigades are largely localized, but ISIS can put together movable units—indeed because ISIS fighters are masked, it was never clear how many fighters it had (were those 200 fighters at location X a different 200 to those at location Y?)—and because ISIS had recruited foreign fanatics who knew nobody but their commanders and were loyal only to ad-Dawla (the State), there were no restraints on ISIS’ footsoldiers, no matter the order.

ISIS’ leaders had another advantage over the rebels, Reuter points out: the complicity of the Assad regime. ISIS avoided fighting the regime, focussing on attacking the rebellion, and, just as regime in Algeria had done two decades before, Assad was happy to play along: he was hell-bent on ensuring that the insurgency was taken over by gruesome Islamists. Assad not only avoided bombing ISIS, among other tactics designed to strengthen it, but when the anti-ISIS revolt erupted, Assad became ISIS’ air force, “regularly—and exclusively—bomb[ing] rebel positions … during battles between IS and rebel groups.”

It is notable that it is not just the very top of ISIS that has the imprint of Saddam’s regime. A former intelligence officer told Sly:

The people in charge of military operations in the Islamic State were the best officers in the former Iraqi army, and that is why the Islamic State beats us in intelligence and on the battlefield.

Hashimi, the aforementioned Iraqi security analyst who also advises Baghdad, said last summer that ISIS had 25,000 men, with “approximately 1,000 medium and top level field commanders, who all have technical, military and security experience.”

In their book about ISIS (reviewed here), Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan quote a Pentagon official saying that when looking at ISIS and seeing the abundance of what Westerners would call “junior officers,” such as captains, majors, warrant officers, one does well to remember that in “Arab armies, usually those are the guys that are the true professionals. The guys that rise higher than major … have tribal connections, family money. They buy their way in.” The formal heads of Saddam’s military were largely party hacks or tribal allies. It was the mid-level officers who had the real military capacity, and the elite of the intelligence agencies—Saddam’s Praetorians—who had the real skill, and now both of these are now at the disposal of ISIS.

Amatzia Baram, who has done much work on the Islamization of Saddam’s regime, has also pointed out the direct movement of the Fedayeen Saddam (Saddam’s Men of Sacrifice) into ISIS. The Fedayeen was set up in October 1994 as a Shabiha-type militia of uneducated young men who were fanatically loyal to the ruler. The Fedayeen were used for internal security, especially to prevent a repeat of the March 1991 uprising by the Shi’a by “the elimination of suspected insurgents” (my italics), but over time, as Saddam’s regime Islamized, the Fedayeen became something like a mutaween (religious police), among other things beheading women accused of prostitution in public squares and making crowds watch. The Fedayeen answered directly to Saddam’s son Uday (who in 1994 was responsible for the regime’s outreach to Osama bin Laden). The Fedayeen were also involved in terrorism, including on at least one occasion a suicide bombing against the Kurds, and had at least planned terrorism against London. The Fedayeen also ran camps that trained up to 8,000 foreign Islamic terrorists and produced gruesome propaganda videos to demonstrate its power. This should all sound very familiar.

During Operation IRAQI FREEDOM (2003), the Fedayeen Saddam “proved themselves as the most audacious and fanatic fighters on the Iraqi side,” Baram notes, fighting on in Baghdad, with hundreds of foreign Arab volunteers, well after the Republican Guard had called it quits. In the Sunni Arab areas, the Fedayeen Saddam “evolved into a major nuisance for the coalition,” Baram continues, but “many … fled to Syria, where they constituted the nucleus for the establishment of ISIS”. (Assad not only hosted the fallen Iraqi Ba’ath regime but provided mukhabarat facilitators and training for the foreign AQM/ISIS fighters, who arrived at Damascus International Airport, to get to Iraq to ensure constitutional order couldn’t take root.)

Both Reuter and Sly take this evidence to suggest that ISIS’ leadership is something less than sincere. The ISIS defector quoted by Sly gives voice to this view:

I don’t think [the ISIS leaders] believe [the ideology] much. The Ba’athists are using Daesh. They don’t care about Ba’athism or even Saddam. They just want power … back.

By this reading, ISIS is essentially the Ba’athists’ al-Hizb al-Awda (The Party of the Return) in Islamist colouring, which uses this apocalyptic ideology to gather foreign recruits in a manner similar to a cult to fight its local battle. While non-jihadi motives are helping ISIS—Sunni revanchism the major one aiding ISIS’ recruitment—the argument against ISIS’ leaders being True Believers does not stack up.

There was always another argument, of which Nibras Kazimi (author of one of the most prescient books on Syria) is a good representative, which says that the Sly-Reuter case is the wrong way around and the Salafists used the Ba’athists. In January 2011, after a trip to Iraq and interviews with sources close to the insurgency, Kazimi wrote:

I went wrong by trying to understand the network of the non-Al-Qaeda actors as having their origins in the Saddam regime, as former officers, security officials and Ba’athists. What I missed was that there was a supra-network of young Salafists and other assortment of young Sunni Islamists who came to age during the 1990s—many of whom spent time in Saddam’s prisons and who all know each other—whose alumnae went on to become Al-Qaeda, the Islamic Army, the Ansar al-Sunna, [Jaysh al-Mujahideen] and the [1920 Revolution Brigades]. This supra-network led the insurgency, and recruited the ex-regime officers and Ba’athists as sub-contractors of the jihad; the Saddamists worked for the Salafists from the very beginning, not the other way around.

There is no doubt that there were Salafi networks in Iraq before 2003 that included military and intelligence officers in Iraq, who had given up Ba’athism, and they were put at the service of AQM/ISIS, which became dominant in the insurgency after 2005.

And ISIS is not, even on the most extreme interpretation, solely a product of the fallen Saddam regime. ISIS drew many recruits from Camp Bucca, where al-Baghdadi himself was imprisoned between Jan. 31 and Dec. 6, 2004. Bucca was an American-run prison in southern Iraq that became a Salafi-jihadist production facility. Weiss and Hassan note that then-AQM actually infiltrated the place—deliberately getting its members arrested, getting them out of harm’s way with free dental care, three meals a day, and a pool of willing recruits. Connections were made and telephone numbers were written on the elastic in the waistband of the prisoners’ underwear. As one former prisoner put it, immediately after release, “I cut the fabric from my boxers and all the numbers were there. We reconnected. And we got to work.” But, says Reuter, “the top leaders had already known each other for a long time.”

There are “graduates” of Bucca—some of them ex-military-intelligence personnel of the Saddam regime, some not—among ISIS’s leadership; there seems little doubt that they take the ideology seriously. Also noteworthy is that long-standing takfiris and the young zealots define ISIS’ identity and give it its resilience, and the foreigners are drawn in almost wholly by the ideology.

There is a contradiction in the Sly and Reuter pieces. Sly says: “after 2010, Baghdadi embarked on an aggressive campaign to woo the former officers”. This would suggest the Ba’athists are subcontractors for the Salafists. On the other hand, Reuter writes that al-Baghdadi was appointed to lead ISIS in 2010 by “a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers,” which gives ISIS unimpeachable religious credentials but essentially makes al-Baghdadi the Ba’athists’ front man. (If this morning’s Guardian is correct, however much power al-Baghdadi had, he has less now, having been seriously wounded in an American airstrike in al-Baaj, west of Mosul, on March 18, surrendering “day-to-day control” of ISIS.)

In reality, ISIS’ current leaders were members from 2003-04, which means Ms. Sly’s timeline is wrong. And to have joined ISIS that early, ISIS’ leaders are ideologues—holdovers of Saddam’s Faith Campaign. While the “Ba’athists” as people run ISIS, Ba’athism as an idea is not what they want, or would get if they were victorious. It is a hybrid Ba’athist-Salafism that is at ISIS’ helm and, contrary to what Reuter suggests, if ISIS succeeded in taking Baghdad and extending its writ to Damascus—something that is extremely unlikely—its regime would look a lot more like the dystopia of ISIS propaganda than the secularism of the Saddam regime’s early years.



Post has been updated to reflect subsequent factual developments. See my two previous posts on this subject here and here.

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